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See Beth Henley’s a Splendid Southern Gothic Comedy “The Miss Firecracker Contest” on Feb. 10-26 at RLT

Kirsten Ehlert stars as Carnelle Scott of Brookhaven, MS, who will do anything to win the town's annual Fourth of July Miss Firecracker contest, including tap dance and somersault to ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' while clenching a sparkler in her teeth (photo by Stuart Wagner)

Kirsten Ehlert stars as Carnelle Scott of Brookhaven, MS, who will do anything to win the town's annual Fourth of July Miss Firecracker contest, including tap dance and somersault to ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' while clenching a sparkler in her teeth (photo by Stuart Wagner)

Raleigh Little Theatre will present The Miss Firecracker Contest, another splendid Southern Gothic comedy by prize-winning Mississippi playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actress Beth Henley, on Feb. 10-12, 16-19, and 23-26 in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre.

Henley won the 1981 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play and the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Crimes of the Heart, which was also nominated for the 1981 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the 1982 Tony Award® for Best Play.

“I first read the play several years ago when I was considering it for production at the university in which I taught theater,” recalls RLT guest director Shawn Smith. “However, I have never done or seen a previous production of The Miss Firecracker Contest. [But] I have been a great fan of Beth Henley, having directed her Crimes of the Heart on two occasions.

Smith adds, “One of the many things I like about [The Miss Firecracker Contest] is the way in which Henley captures her rather exocentric Southern characters. She imbues them with humor and is able to take otherwise stereotypical characters and make the human — funny and yet poignant at the same time. It’s as if I know these characters, having myself grown up in the South….

Miss Firecracker centers around an insecure girl, Carnelle Scott (Kirsten Ehlert), who desperately wants to win her Mississippi hometown beauty contest,” says Shawn Smith. “Carnelle is surrounded by a wacky group of cousins and friends: Elain Rutledge (Sharon Galluzzo), Delmont Williams (Aaron Young), and Popeye Jackson (Laurell Bell). They cause her both emotional stress and unbalanced support.”

Smith adds, “Carnelle was dropped off at the home of Aunt Ronelle, who has recently died, at the age of nine. She is, in essence, and orphan who lacks self-esteem and longs to fit in and belong.

“Act One takes place at the shabby home of Aunt Ronelle, as Carnelle prepares to enter the contest,” Smith explains. “In Act Two, which takes place at the carnival-contest, two other characters appear. One is a former boyfriend, the seedy Mac Sam (Larry Evans), and the other is Tessie Mahoney (Becca Easley), the pageant coordinator. All of the characters are bizarre, yet lovable and very human. The play is certainly a comedy, yet with a Southern gothic flavor and charming whimsy.”

First produced in 1980 in Los Angeles, The Miss Firecracker Contest made its Off-Broadway debut on Oct. 15, 1984, at the Westside Theatre (Upstairs), where it played for 113 performances before closing on Jan. 20, 1985. That Manhattan Theatre Club production, directed by Stephen Tobolowsky, starred Holly Hunter as Carnelle Scott, Claire Malis as Elain Rutledge, Mark Linn-Baker as Delmount Williams, and June Stein as Popeye Jackson.

The 1989 motion-picture version of the play, entitled Miss Firecracker and directed by Thomas Schlamme, featured a screenplay by Beth Henley. The movie starred Holly Hunter as Carnelle Scott, Mary Steenburgen as Elain Rutledge, Tim Robbins as Delmount Williams, and Alfre Woodard as Popeye Jackson.

In addition to director Shawn Smith, the Raleigh Little Theatre creative team for The Miss Firecracker Contest includes technical director and set and lighting designer Jim Zervas, property manager Ann-Marie Crosmun, sound designer Becca Easley, stage manager Dan Eckert.

Smith says, the setting for Act One is the living room of Ronelle Williams in Brookhaven, MS. The setting for Act Two is at the back stage dressing room area of the contest.

In Act One, the lighting is dim and gloomy, whereas in Act Two, it is bright and cheerful. The costumes basically reflect the period (1980) and the individual style of each character: from tasteful to tasteless.

“I think that the major challenge for me as director [in staging a community-theater production of The Miss Firecracker Contest] has been to properly balance the humor with the pathos of the characters and situations,” reveals Shawn Smith. “For the actors, the challenge is in making what might easily be stereotyped characters vividly human and real. For the designers, there is certainly a challenge in moving from Aunt Ronelle’s living room in Act One to the backstage of the carnival-beauty pageant.”

Smith adds, “Generally, the play is suitable for children 12 and over. There is smoking on stage and some discussion regarding a venereal disease.”

Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST at 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11, 3 p.m. Feb. 12, 8 p.m. Feb. 16-18, 3 p.m. Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Feb. 23-25, and 3 p.m. Feb. 26 in the Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $20 ($16 students and seniors 62+), except all tickets $12 on Feb. 19th.

BOX OFFICE: 919/821-3111 or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/11-12/firecracker.html.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/.

DIRECTIONS: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html.

PARKING: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/parking.html.

NOTE: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows.

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

The Film: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0097892/ (Internet Movie Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Firecracker (Wikipedia).

The Playwright and Screenwriter: http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/henley_beth/index.html (The Mississippi Writers Page) and (Wikipedia).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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